In 2018 Brighton and Hove City Council unanimously declared a climate emergency. This was part of a wave of declarations across the country, started by Green Councillor Carla Denyer.
Let’s be clear: declaring a climate emergency was the easy bit. Since then, the world has bounced from crisis to crisis, and amid the chaos Green councillors have been maintaining our focus on how our city can reduce toxic carbon emissions by 2030 .
On 23 July, Greens unexpectedly became the largest party on the Brighton and Hove City Council. While it is true that we’ve taken the leadership at one of the most unprecedented times in recent memory, more Greens at the helm also presents an opportunity to provide renewed energy and focus on tackling the biggest issue we face: the climate crisis.
But this work is also best done together – politicians are not the only voices, and we need to work with communities to create change. The fact remains that the route to lowering emissions by 2030 is not a well-trodden path; and we need to lead the way.
While many perceive the climate crisis as solely an ‘environmental’ issue, in truth, it’s about society, too. Back in opposition, Greens pushed the council to consider a ‘Green New Deal’, a plan for creating the jobs and social conditions we need to enhance our health, our economy and avert climate change.
The crucial thing about the Green New Deal is that it recognises the intrinsic link between social and climate justice, and how policies intended to prevent the worst of the climate crisis will improve the quality of life of citizens. With the Covid-19 pandemic upon us, it’s more important than ever that we look at the ways we can create employment opportunities and in sectors that benefit people and the planet.
Transport, which represents a third of Brighton and Hove’s emissions, is a vital piece of the climate crisis puzzle. It’s also fundamentally about our health; Public Health England has called physical activity a ‘miracle cure,’ for a whole range of illnesses and outlined the devastating consequences of rising air pollution. We need liveable neighbourhoods and low traffic neighbourhoods that support people’s good health and their safety.
We were pleased in opposition to receive support for a call to work towards a car-free city centre by 2023 (with exemptions for disabled people, among other groups), as areas in our city, like the North Laine, that are widely pedestrianised have helped keep our local independent shops alive. We also asked to introduce a meaningful ultra-low emission zone to cut our illegal levels of air pollution.
We are now overseeing the implementation of the Government’s emergency active travel fund initiatives, which involved putting in temporary active travel infrastructure to aid safe cycling and walking. The School Streets programme, which involves restricting cars on roads around schools in order to support children and families who want to walk, cycle or scoot to school safely, as well as helping social distancing as the Covid-19 pandemic continues. We are also looking into how we can use hydrogen as a clean energy source for our public transport, and rolling out more electric vehicle charging points across the city.
One of the first Green motions of this term was to support the school strike for climate, in recognition of young strikers and the incredible work they have done in raising the climate emergency higher on the political agenda. We also successfully called for each school in the local authority area to have at least one teacher with specialist climate change training. We have to be able to look at these issues in the round.
Housing also represents an opportunity to bring down emissions and create better homes for people in the city. The council’s housing stock has a huge part to play in reducing overall emissions. Greens have established a zero-carbon working group to tackle this problem; and with news from the Local Government Association that energy efficient changes to housing stock – like retrofitting, insulation and installing solar panels – can help to create hundreds of new jobs, combat the climate crisis and bring down fuel bills, taking a ‘climate crisis’ approach to housing really is a win-win for residents, too.
Crises such as the climate emergency can often feel too big to fully comprehend, which is why local action and engagement is vital. We don’t want policy making to feel like a distant and bureaucratic process: we want residents to feel that they have agency and a loud voice that politicians will listen to, and a chance to have their say in the changes that will have a direct impact on their daily lives.
This week saw the first meeting of the city’s new Climate Assembly, bringing 50 residents from all walks of life together to discuss transport and how we can reach our climate goals. Independent organisations Ipsos MORI and Sortition helped ensure that participants reflect the diversity of Brighton and Hove, taking into account race, gender, class, health and disability, and age. By focusing on transport for this first assembly, we hope that participants will be able to provide detailed feedback for how we decarbonise transport in the city. The feedback from our residents will go straight to the heart of decision-making and inform our 2030 plan.
2020 has been a year of unprecedented challenges, with the Covid-19 pandemic throwing everything into question. In a world with increasingly global problems, local action is more important than ever, which is why the Climate Assembly will be so important. 2020 must also be a year of furthering our plans to drastically reduce our emissions, in order to avoid the worst of the climate crisis.
We cannot bounce people directly from the Covid-19 crisis into the climate crisis. It’s now clear that so much of what we do for our environment will also be good for our economy and society. As we continue to push the climate crisis further up the agenda, Greens also have an opportunity to shape a more positive future, for people and for the planet.
Amy Heley is Green Party councillor for Preston Park ward on Brighton and Hove City Council and Chair of the Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee.